According to legend, comic books as we know them today began when Maxwell Charles Gaines, a true New York character, got the idea to put a ten cent sticker on a collection of newspaper comic strip reprints. He placed them on several newsstands in the city, and in days they were sold out. Regardless of the veracity of this story, it is true that comic books grew out of a publishing industry that was developed by Lower East Side Jewish immigrants and their children by such entrepreneurs as Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. In the transition of popular culture from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression, these publishers who had made fortunes in pulp magazines, found their destinies when they started reprinting newspaper comic strips.
Soon a former US Cavalry officer and popular writer of pulps named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson used his connections in the New York publishing industry to start a brand new line of all-original comics right here in New York City, called "Detective Comics." The company he began quickly became the most popular publisher of comic books in America, and still exists today as DC Comics.
It is no accident then, that the two most popular superheroes from that company both lived in cities that were thinly disguised versions of our own. Everybody knows that Metropolis and Gotham City are but fictional stand-ins for the city that was home to the publishing empire that gave them life.
From the streets, schools, pulp magazines, and art departments of New York came the earliest legends of comic book art and writing: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Lou Fine, Jack Cole, Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Carl Burgos, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Frazetta, Otto and Jack Binder. Their work in turn inspired a succeeding generation of great New York-raised comic creators, including Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane and Joe Kubert.
They worked as freelancers or in "shops," churning out four-color fantasies that answered their frustrations and fed the imagination of kids on stoops, high schoolers at the soda shops, and soldiers overseas. And almost all the companies they worked for, DC, Marvel, Dell, Harvey, MLJ (which later became Archie), Gold Key, EC, and more, each and every one of them was located right here in the Big Apple.
There were downturns and tragedy too. Bill Gaines (son of Max Gaines and inheritor of EC, the company he started) and Dr. Frederic Wertham argued the merits and evils of comic books in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee at the Foley Square Courthouse. At times New York City even considered laws censoring comic books. At one point it was rumored that Jerry Siegel, disenfranchised co-creator of Superman, would jump off the Empire State Building.
But these tragedies were made up for by the Marvel Age of Comics, in which the Big Apple no longer had to hide behind a fictional stand-in, but was proudly acknowledged as the home of the most exciting superheroes ever created. Spider-Man grew up in Queens and works at a newspaper located in Midtown. The World's Mightiest Heroes live at the Avengers Mansion on 5th Avenue. The heroes of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, the Fantastic Four, live and work in a mixed-use building on Madison Avenue, and Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, inhabits a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Even the mutant X-Men, who reside at a "School for Gifted Children" in Westchester County, would visit Manhattan on their days off.
These characters and comic books created in New York became part of the pop culture mainstream. Rolling Stone had the Incredible Hulk on its cover. Roy Lichtenstein gave his first solo show of his paintings incorporating comic book art at New York's famous Leo Castelli Gallery. Marvel Comics even hosted "An Evening with Stan Lee" at Carnegie Hall!
When Hollywood took notice of the popularity of comic book superheroes, many of the best superhero movies made were set, and shot, right here in New York (Superman, X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc), giving the world a new view of our fair city, and employing hundreds of film industry professionals.
When comic books seemed to be going down for the count due to slumping newsstand sales in the early 1970's, it was a Brooklyn high school teacher named Phil Seuling who saved the industry by establishing the direct sales market, the first comic book distributor, the first comic book conventions, and the first comic book specialty stores in the world, right here in New York City. This distribution business spread to England, which led to the founding of the Forbidden Planet, the first comic book mega-store. In 1981 the business came full circle when Forbidden Planet opened a store in Manhattan that is now a flagship store for the industry.
The love of comic books have even made superheroes out of ordinary people. When a devastating snowstorm threatened to cancel a major convention at the Jacob Javits Center, Michael Carbonaro and two friends grabbed a phone book and a taxicab and started the Big Apple Convention, which has been having multiple shows every year for the past twelve years. These conventions bring masters of the comic book field to the public, as well as giving fans and collectors the opportunities to shop hundreds of dealers of old and rare comic books and related memorabilia.
New York City is the home of some of the great art schools in the country (the School of Visual Arts, Parsons, Cooper Union, Pratt, NYU, Fashion Institute) and their faculty and students have expanded and reinvigorated the medium with abundant inspiration and talent. An appreciation for the artistic merits of comic books has inspired the creation of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA). This institution is in the tradition of the great art societies of New York, showcasing the work of the geniuses, groundbreakers, and legends of comics. Once a year they host an art festival which is a showcase for independent comic book creators and publishers from all over the world to reach new audiences.
Zorikh Lequidre, April, 2008
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